Written by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Ramadha Trivanessa Isabelle Valentine.

Image Credit: Malcolm Brown/Flickr, Licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

While many people are fortunate enough to reside in countries where the law permits the right of religious freedom, for the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, such liberty has been increasingly curtailed by the Chinese government in Beijing.

In the case of Xinjiang, Indonesia has not taken any clear diplomatic position as yet and remains very careful about commenting on the Uyghur issue

The United Nations estimates that around one million ethnic Uyghurs have been detained in so-called ‘re-education camps’ since 2017. International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International stress that over the past years the Chinese government has stepped up its campaigns of mass detention, political indoctrination and forced assimilation against the Uyghurs.

The University of Washington’s Dru Gladney maintains that China’s oppression against the Uyghurs has increased dramatically since the late 1990s, and their plight has triggered the anger of the international community. For instance, many human rights activists in Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, the UK and the US have organised protests and demonstrations against the government in Beijing.

Indonesia’s stance

In the midst of all this, it is interesting to know what Indonesia’s position is on the issue. This is not only because it is one of China’s most important international partners, but also because on 1 January 2019 Indonesia became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) set out Indonesia’s four priorities in talks with the UNSC’s permanent members. Among them, the first is to strengthen the ecosystem of world peace and stability by strengthening the culture of peaceful conflict resolution. In addition, Jokowi promised to synergise steps to achieve peace in line with the 2030 development agenda.  Indonesia’s vision and mission in serving as a member of the UNSC needs to be appreciated. Indeed, it is now time for countries like Indonesia to be more involved in global humanitarian peace and advocacy efforts.

The question is to what extent Indonesia is serious about carrying out its agenda of strengthening global peace and stability through diplomacy when it comes to the plight of the Uyghurs. This piece therefore focuses on the options available for Indonesia to perform its essential role in resolving the Uyghur crisis.

It should be noted that part of the agenda of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically Goal 16 – is the creation of justice, peace and strong institutions by encouraging a just and peaceful society. This goal is very far from being achieved if seen in the context of the situation in Xinjiang. Uyghur Muslims have difficulty in carrying out their freedom of religion, and their protests have been met with violence by the government in Beijing. Amnesty International notes that the government bans growing a beard, wearing the hijab, praying, fasting, or possessing Islamic books.

In the case of Xinjiang, Indonesia has not taken any clear diplomatic position as yet and remains very careful about commenting on the Uyghur issue. Indonesia’s vision for its non-permanent membership of the UNSC seems to be far from ideal if we look at what the country has actually done up until now.

Despite rejecting human rights violations against the Uyghurs in speeches, Vice President Jusuf Kalla maintains that Indonesia is unable to interfere – even though Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and could play a significant role in resolving the issue. The situation in Xinjiang should feature prominently in Indonesia’s foreign policy and state diplomacy.

A step forward

It is understandable that Indonesia may face problems if it endeavours to resolve the Xinjiang issue bilaterally with China. Jakarta’s strong economic ties with Beijing, which have grown in recent years with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), represent a barrier that makes it difficult for Indonesia to challenge China over Xinjiang.

Based on data from ANP-INSIGHT, from the global perspective China occupies a global player position at the level of diplomacy and also has a balance in its internal and external security, reaching 0.1. China’s vitality policy reaches 0.89. Indonesia, meanwhile, only occupies an internal player position, placing more emphasis on inward-looking policies, and it has 0.33 policy vitality. This condition makes it clear that Indonesia is not in a strong diplomatic bargaining position vis-à-vis China, even if it was interested in resolving the issue of Xinjiang bilaterally.

What is crucial to note, however, is that the bilateral approach is not the only way to resolve the problem. If Jakarta was seriously determined, it could move multilaterally by involving other countries in discussing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Indonesia could use the platforms of the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) as alternatives to bilateral talks with China on the plight of the Uyghur Muslims.

Being a founding member of ASEAN, Indonesia could use that regional organisation to fight for the Uyghurs at the diplomatic level. Even though ASEAN is a relatively small organisation, such efforts could yield positive results in terms of putting diplomatic pressure on China to curb its oppression of the Uyghur Muslims.

Indonesia could similarly encourage the OIC to put pressure on China. This may not produce significant results in the short-term, since many Muslim countries are partners to the BRI project. However, these Muslim countries need to be aware that they have reliable bargaining power vis-a-vis China. The official map of the BRI shows that the planned routes for the initiative could not be realised without the cooperation of these Muslim countries which are members of the OIC. Therefore, Indonesia could help in winning support for the Uyghur Muslims by highlighting their plight in OIC sessions. It could even call for the OIC to hold an urgent session on the issue.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno L. Marsudi recently stated that Indonesia will use its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – where China is a permanent member – to have a dialogue with all Council members around several humanitarian issues. This is the right moment and a further platform for Indonesia to play its crucial role by engaging in diplomatic efforts and dialogue with China on the Uyghur case.

Dr Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a lecturer at Universitas Islam Indonesia and a research associate at the Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF).

Ramadha Trivanessa Isabelle Valentine is a student majoring in International Relations at Universitas Islam Indonesia.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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